If a classic, as Mark Twain claimed, is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read, then William F. Buckley, Jr.’s God and Man at Yale is the epitome of a conservative classic. Few who have read it (and they are indeed few) would dispute its importance to the founding of modern conservatism. As the historian George Nash said, God and Man was “probably the most controversial book in the history of conservatism since 1945 and it’s importance for this movement is manifold.”
Still, it’s a book about the failings of Yale in the mid-twentieth century. If you suspect it’s an anachronistic cultural artifact you won’t be wrong. Buckley spends a considerable portion of the book calling out Yale professors and administrators for being irreligious and socialistic. The perverse appeal of watching the impish young Yalie naming names is muted by the fact that few of the names are people you’d recognize.
This was what made the book controversial. But what made it truly outrageous at the time—and makes it even more scandalous now—is the primary thesis. God and Man is a polemic with a simple, inflammatory proposal: Because Yale actively undermines the students’ faith in Christianity and the free market, the alumni should withhold financial support from the university. The corollary was obvious: Yale should do something about these professors.
Consider, for a moment, the audacity of the suggestion. The idea that an Ivy League school should restrict academic freedom when teachers use it to erode confidence in economic freedom and Christianity is even more peculiar now than it was in 1951. Today, even assistant professors at podunk Bible colleges think they should have the right to undermine the faith of their students. At a school like Yale, you would be shocked if the professors didn’t denigrate conservative religious and economic beliefs.
Buckley understood that Truth not only does not always trump falsehood, but it can never win unless it is promulgated. He believed Christianity has already been established as an “ultimate, irrefutable truth.” For a believer to treat it as an open question—in any situation or context—would not only be intellectually dishonest but would be a surrender to the forces that worked for our destruction.
In God and Man, he unapologetically declares, “I believe that the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world. I further believe that the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level.”
Who would have the courage to make such a claim today? Can you imagine the reaction if a prominent conservative were to say that at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference? After the crowd recovered from fainting at such a bigoted religious view, they’d boo him from the stage. How dare he besmirch the good conservative atheists? They have as much claim to the title “conservative” as anyone else.
How remarkable that the thesis of a book that helped launch the conservative movement could, less than half a century later, be completely repudiated by people who claim to be the author’s intellectual heirs. But that is not quite true. It would be more accurate to say that they repudiated only part of it. They’ve foolishly discarded Buckley’s emphasis on Christianity but retained, as they should, his love of free enterprise.
For instance, everyone in the conservative movement knows that you can be an atheist who actively works to undermine traditional Judeo-Christian morality and conservative social issues and still receive a book deal with a conservative publisher, a fellowship at a conservative think-tank, or a place on the masthead of a major conservative publication. What you cannot do—without being stripped of the label “conservative”—is question free market orthodoxy. You can be squishy on the issue of cutting a child out of the womb, but waver on the prudence of cutting the capital gains tax and you’ll be treated as a traitor.
Of course you can still be a Christian—even an evangelical one—within the movement, for the conservative elite is not openly hostile to the faith. In fact, many of the leaders in the movement are, like the administrators of Yale in the 1940s, good churchgoing folk. They are all in favor of religion, provided it is practiced in private and not forced on others. Christianity can be a harmless pastime, similar to woodworking, quilting, or homosexuality.
When it comes to the expression of religious convictions in public and as a defining mark of conservatism, these movement leaders are moderately pro-choice. Christianity should remain safe, legal, and—like Judaism—rare.
The mission of the institutional movement, after all, is to build a big-tent coalition—and nothing is as divisive as a belief system that makes moral claims about how voters should behave and presses for public policy and laws limiting their choices. Serious pro-lifers, even if they are not members of “the Religious Right,” turn off the moderate independents in Connecticut. (Of course, in Connecticut, they also turn off the Republicans.) If we want to take back Congress and save the country from Obama, the establishment leaders contend, we can’t be telling people what to do with embryos in their uteri.
Lest you think I exaggerate the lack of interest in religiously-oriented, non-economic issues, and the open hostility to making them part of the core definition of “conservatism,” I encourage you to make a trip to our nation’s capital and see for yourself.
Stop by a trendy D.C. bar and strike up a conversation about social issues with a group of young Congressional staffers, think-tank interns, and associate editors of opinion journals. If you can tell the difference between the liberals and conservatives based on their view of same-sex marriage I’ll buy the next round; if you can find more than one committed social conservative in the group I’ll buy you the saloon.
These are exceptions, of course. A handful of conservative institutions located in Washington (such as the Heritage Foundation and Family Research Council) are dedicated to the promotion of both Judeo-Christian morality and economic freedom. But they are notable because they are older institutions that haven’t yet succumbed to the prevailing trend.
Increasingly, the elites of the institutional conservative movement do not reflect—much less emphasize—the traditional religious values of their supporters. The obvious question we should be asking ourselves is the same one that Buckley presented to the Yale alumnus: Since they do not support our values, why do we continue to financially support them?
We can appreciate their contributions and praise them as co-belligerents in the promotion of economic freedom. But why would we continue to give them money to speak for us when they are actively working to marginalize Christianity and silence its influence in the public square?
Joe Carter is web editor of First Things.